October 20, 2016Print : Editorial
Back in 2010, a clause in the 18th Amendment acknowledged the right to information as a basic constitutional right of all Pakistanis. It took till 2013 for the PPP-led Senate, through the Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting and National Heritage to approve the Right to Information Act. The act was widely praised by civil society and NGOs as among the strongest in the region. Since then, however, the federal government has endlessly delayed tabling the act in the National Assembly, with Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed continually vowing it would be taken up by the cabinet soon and never following through. Now, finally, the PML-N government has produced its own RTI bill – which undoes much of the good that was contained in the Senate bill. The government bill has been rated as among the weakest in South Asia by the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy, an NGO which produces the Global Right to Information Rating comparing various right to information laws around the world. The government version more closely resembles the Musharraf-era Freedom of Information Ordinance of 2002, a misnomer of a bill which exempted such huge swathes of government and the judiciary from making information public that it ended up completely toothless.
The Senate bill had only created disclosure exemptions for narrowly-defined information that needed to be kept secret for reasons of national security. The government is now trying to broaden that category and has also watered down the right of citizens to inspect public documents. It has further made the bill toothless by allowing the government to appoint anyone from the legal community, civil society or bureaucracy to ensure information is made public without specifying how many members should be from each community. There is a worry that the government will end up appointing only bureaucrats, who have their own vested interest in keeping information from being public. PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar, who was part of the effort to draft the original bill, said at a seminar at the Rawalpindi Bar Association that national security needs to be clearly and narrowly defined so that it isn’t used as an excuse to deny people information. He also called for the workings of the judiciary to be made more transparent by taking another look at how contempt laws can have a chilling effect. The government should heed Babar’s words and also use the lauded RTI bills passed by the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments as a model to craft legislation that acknowledges the right to know what the government is doing in our names.